brand, culture

Are you a creative in a corporate world? You are not alone.

Last weekend I read a book that Jonathan Opp recommended called In-House Design in Practice. It’s a bible for people who work as part of an internal creative agency within a larger corporation, which is one of the key roles of our Brand Communications + Design group at Red Hat.


In some ways, this a self help book, maybe even a support group, for creative types. I learned many things about what others in internal agency roles go through, but if I was to sum it up, I’d say I learned that I am not alone. There are others out there operating in internal agencies at corporations all around the world, and they have the same issues and opportunities we have. While the book is focused on graphic design, many of the lessons apply to other internal agency roles– editorial, web, video, you name it.

The book starts with what the authors call a “jaded” definition of an in-house designer:

…a creative person who finds him- or herself–by choice or circumstance– in an alien world ruled by left-brain-thinkers who undervalue, misunderstand, and in general, do not take full advantage of the benefit design can bring to business.

Ok, I’m listening…

As a creative person lodged firmly in a business world, you are a unique character. It can be a lonely post, but you have exactly the same goal as the people who so often disrespect, misunderstand, or step all over your work; you all want the larger organization to succeed.

Yes! (maybe ratchet down the empathy a bit though, people.)

And then comes the key theme of the book:

Chances are… you are never going to transform those people into the same kind of creative person that you are. But you can transform yourself into the kind of businessperson who can very adeptly speak their language.

What a perfect way to start a book about creative work! With some humility.

I mean, ever seen an accountant at an art opening? He’s trying, for Pete’s sake… so when we creatives are in the business world, we need to be trying too, just as hard. A few years ago some of our team went to an AIGA conference in New York City where we saw Roger Martin speak (in addition to being the head of the Rottman School of Management at the University of Toronto, he is amazing speaker and great advocate for the role of design in business). During his AIGA speech, one of Dr. Martin’s key messages was that designers need to be fluent in the language of business in order to be successful. This perspective is dead on.

One of my favorite lines from the book:

Trying to describe what a designer does– how the creative process works– to a left-brained person is like trying to capture water in your hands: it slips away faster than it can be studied.

Yes, go on…

When talking about design with non-creative types, focusing on practical, non-artistic issues also works better. In this way, the actual, swirly nuances of creativity (that with which only the designer is interested) are kept out of the conversation, and focus is placed on the end goal (which everyone is interested in).

The book is filled with tips from smart in-house creative types. I especially like this list of questions to ask yourself when testing whether you are doing effective design, from Michele Floriani, Director of Branding for BMC Software:

1. Are we providing agency-quality work at a discounted price?

2. Are we more familiar with the topics/products than outside resources?

3. Are we moving faster because we have inside visibility?

4. Are we extending our services into areas that would normally be cost-prohibitive to the company if done externally?

5. Are we going farther because we have a vested interest in the success of all that is accomplished at [company]?

I could go on. Last word? This was a really interesting read, worth every penny. To that end, I’ll save any further examples from the book so that you can pick them up directly from the book itself when you go buy your copy. Happy reading!

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


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